Jerusalem Bus Blast Kills Eight

A homicide bomber blew himself up on a crowded Jerusalem bus Sunday morning, killing eight people and wounding 59 in an attack Israeli officials said proved the need for its disputed security barrier.

The attack came just a day before the International Court of Justice (searchat the Hague was to begin hearings on the barrier, which Israel says is critical to keeping out the bombers that have killed hundreds of Israelis in more than three years of violence.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a militant group loosely affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack and identified the bomber as Mohammed Zool, 23, from the village of Hussan near Bethlehem.

Soon after the bombing, Israeli troops sealed off Bethlehem and Palestinian police left their posts in the town, Palestinian security sources said.

The huge blast went off around 8:30 a.m. during morning rush hour as the bus drove past a gas station in downtown Jerusalem.

"It was like an earthquake," Ora Yairov, who was at the gas station during the explosion, told Channel One television. "The station was filled with shattered glass and pieces of flesh."

The explosion ripped apart the back of the green bus and scattered body parts and shattered glass across a two-block radius. The windows were blown out, the windscreen cracked and the roof was raised.

"I felt blood on my head. I saw terrible things. I tried not to look," said Moshe Salama (search), a 56-year-old alternative healer who was on the bus. The left lens of his glasses was cracked where it was hit by a piece of shrapnel.

Israeli authorities said seven were killed Sunday, but later an official at the forensic institute told The Asociated Press there were parts of eight bodies, not including the bomber. Rescue officials said at least 60 were injured.

An hour after the blast, bodies still lay on the sidewalk. Rescue workers wrapped them in white sheets and put body parts in bags. Security forces stood on the roof of the nearby gas station watching the crowd.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called a meeting with top security officials for Sunday night to discuss possible responses to the attack.

Israeli officials said the attack never would have happened had the section of the barrier being built around Jerusalem already been completed.

"This attack proves just how urgent it is to build the fence," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said. "It is a clear preventive measure ... We will continue building it because it saves lives."

The Palestinians say the barrier — one-third of which has already been built — amounts to a land grab because it would cut several miles into the West Bank in some areas and disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia condemned Sunday's bombing. In a statement, he called for "an immediate halt to these actions," which he said gave Israel an excuse to continue building the barrier and to carry out raids against militants.

The bombing was the first since a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus near Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's house on Jan. 29, killing 11 passengers.

Sunday's explosion came from a medium-sized bomb laced with pieces of iron that exploded in the center of the bus, police said.

A security agent had boarded the bus a few stops before the explosion, checked it and then got off, Gidi Goldflam, a passenger, told Army Radio. It was unclear if the bomber had been on the bus at the time.

The blast occurred near the Inbal Hotel, where American Jewish leaders were listening to a speech by Army chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon.

"The closeness reminds (us) that everyone can be a victim of terror and nobody is immune," Malcolm Hoenlein (search), an official with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The attack came as Israeli workers started removing a section of the West Bank separation barrier — about 5 miles of fencing, razor wire and trenches — that has isolated the Palestinian town of Baka al-Sharkia from the rest of the West Bank for more than a year. The move appeared aimed at softening criticism ahead of the world court hearing.

Israel has come under increasing pressure — including domestic legal challenges — to reroute the barrier to more closely conform to its border with the West Bank and lessen its effect on Palestinians. When completed, the barrier is to be some 435 miles long.

Nir Barkat, a former mayoral candidate, was driving nearby during the explosion and ran inside the bus to help.

"It's horrible what happened here, and the world has to know this," Barkat told Channel Two television, his hands, pants and shoes covered in blood. "Our right not to be blown up is more important than the quality of life of people whose lives will be disrupted as a result of our protection through the fence and other means."